The National Prayer Breakfast: validating theocracy

Three Way Fight


Barack Obama speaks at National Prayer Breakfast 2-5-09

This morning, as he has done every February since 2009, Barack Obama addressed the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. The National Prayer Breakfast is sponsored by a secretive theocratic Christian organization known as The Family or The Fellowship, a group I first learned about from Jeff Sharlet’s scathing 2008 exposé, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. Here’s a quote from my review of Sharlet’s book:

“The Family is all about power. It believes that the wealthy and powerful are chosen by God, and its mission as an organization centers on bringing them to Jesus, bringing them into a spiritual ‘covenant’ of total unity with each other. ‘Hitler made a covenant,’ [Family head] Doug Coe is apparently fond of saying. ‘The Mafia makes a covenant. It is a very powerful thing’ — all the more so when it is based on submission to Jesus (54). The Family teaches that those who hold worldly power, as long as they pledge obedience to Jesus, can kill, torture, rape, steal, and lie on a mass scale with no moral constraints whatsoever. This, too, sets the Family apart. Christian rightists generally present themselves as defenders of civic morality. However twisted or hypocritical that claim may be in practice, it’s a far cry from the Family’s absolute repudiation of ethical principles.”

Every president of the United States since Eisenhower has been a featured speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast, validating and bolstering the influence of the theocratic organization that sponsors it. With rare exceptions, mainstream media treats this as completely uncontroversial.

But as former Christian rightist Frank Schaeffer asked in a 2010 New York Times column, “Would President Obama speak at a prayer breakfast organized by the KKK? Would Jim Wallis and other ‘progressive’ Christians attend?”

Because The Family doesn’t just work with hardline conservatives. It’s also happy to work with moderates and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, anyone who will help further its work of Christianizing the ruling class. Hillary Clinton, for example, has had a close relationship with The Family for a decade or more.

(For more on this group, see also Sharlet’s follow-up book, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, which among other things details the Family’s involvement in Uganda, including heavy support for the 2009 bill that would have made homosexuality punishable by death.)

Photo credit:
Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

7 thoughts on “The National Prayer Breakfast: validating theocracy”

  1. The remarks by the President at 2015 National Prayer Breakfast were written for that audience. Those Prayer Breakfasts were NOT sponsored by the government. The wall that separates Church and State was not that deeply cracked by the President's participation, that that crack cannot be overlooked. After 75 years of “the Family”, there is no established Christian theocracy in the USA!

    Obama said:

    “we should start with some basic humility.  I believe that the starting point … is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and … that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth. 

    …we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling….  And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His [Christ's] name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.  No God condones terror.  No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.

    …we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion….  we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion — the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose…”

    Obama also said: “during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ….  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often were justified in the name of Christ.”

    “We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism … claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”

    [end of quotes from the President's 2015 remarks]

    On another matter, regarding Jeff Sharlet's expose, The Family. I appreciate honest investigative reporting. Lyons quotes Sharlet: “The Family teaches that those who hold worldly power, as long as they pledge obedience to Jesus, can kill, torture, rape, steal, and lie on a mass scale with no moral constraints whatsoever.”

    Shocking! Is this fully honest? “The Family” itself is not illegal, but this quote, without clarification, jolts and confuses.

    Sanctioning immoral activity for “those who hold worldly power” may be something like Christianity being wrongly used to sanction slavery, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and Colonialism. “Obedience to Jesus” and Jesus' name were sometimes abused to do evil on a mass scale.

    Fraudulently claiming the mantle of religious and moral authority to commit evil is not unprecedented.

    President Obama's remarks to the 2015 Breakfast, as quoted above, neither validate nor bolster theocracy. For starters, “theocracy” needs a working definition here.

    Pope John Paul II issued over 100 apologies for his Church's past wrong doing. (The Vatican may be a theocracy.) See

    On another matter: Obama told the National Prayer Breakfast in 2010 that: “it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are … in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda.” That Ugandan law was first modified, then last year was declared invalid by its Constitutional Court.

    The President targeted precisely the right group for his messages! Inviting a sitting President to speak at the annual Prayer breakfast does not “validate” theocracy. The President accepted the invitation, provided moral leadership, and celebrated humility. I don't have a problem with what the President said, or that he used that annual Breakfast forum to say it.

  2. Bernard – You're right that we don't live under a theocratic government in the United States. I can see how my headline, taken in isolation, could be misconstrued as implying that we do. I think that the body of the piece makes clear that I am referring to theocracy as an ideology. My point is that for the president of the U.S. to speak at a public event sponsored by a theocracy-promoting organization lends legitimacy to that organization, in the same way that a president speaking at an event sponsored by the KKK would lend legitimacy to that organization. The specifics of what the president said at the prayer breakfast are secondary.

    The statement that you refer to as a quote from Sharlet's book ("The Family teaches…") is actually a quote from my review of Sharlet's book. But it's an accurate paraphrasal of Sharlet's description, which is based on his eyewitness accounts of statements by Family officials and his research into the organization's archives. The fact that Sharlet's portrayal is shocking is not in itself reason to question its honesty.

  3. Should this President avoid next February's National Prayer Breakfast?


    Will the President's attendance at the next Breakfast give much undeserved moral credibility to the fundamentalist group that sponsors it?


    (This reminds me of one of last year's questions on this website: Should the "progressive community" shun or support the controversial Israeli activist, Gilad Atzman? I did not agree with this blog's answer.)

    The National Prayer Breakfast is sponsored by a group that is associated with theocratic-like ideology, secret back room diplomacy, and accusations of a lack of traditional moral restraint.

    I have not read Sharlet's book. I did read some of the links I collected and listed above, and some of the 231+ customer reviews of Sharlet's book on Amazon.

    Further thoughts about theocracy:

    “Theocracy” is a form of government.

    The US Constitution forbids theocracy, unless the First Amendment is changed. The President is sworn to uphold the US Constitution.

    President Obama's remarks at the Annual Prayer Breakfast were outstanding, and they specifically support the separation of Church and State. It took courage for this President to speak to the Christians at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast as he did. I applaud him for what he taught.

    The President's participation at the Breakfast does not “lend legitimacy” to undocumented insinuation that this President supports “theocracy as an ideology” and that his attendance wrongly sanctions any of "the Family's" moral and diplomatic failings.

    I understand and accept Mathew's argument that the sponsoring organization of a public event makes a difference. If this President attended an event sponsored by the KKK, but if he then, at his talk, publicly critiqued the KKK for its historical racism and he defended effective federal civil rights legislation, his words might generate controversy and even constructive public discourse. Constructive rhetoric and learning may rise from well attended, and carefully managed, controversy.

    There may be “Christian theocratic-like ideology” at the website of "the Family," the organization that sponsors the Annual Prayer Breakfast. Similar religious ideology is found in some of the social services, even in the military and state prison systems in the USA. Support for such claims may be found here:

    I can easily read the arguments that secular government should maintain distance from fundamentalist/religious ideology.

    Two unrelated thoughts:

    The Dalai Lama attended the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast. His religious predecessors ruled Tibet for centuries. I doubt President Obama, the Dalai Lama, or “the Family” support these old theocracies (with their extreme privilege and poverty) as the desired form of government for Tibet today. See

    There is nevertheless a role created for religion behind the facade of secular power in countries where many citizens are deeply religious.

    Senator Mark Hatfield, a member of “The Family,” spoke to the Prayer Breakfast years ago. He called the US war in Vietnam “a national sin and shame” in front of President Richard Nixon and his advisor, Henry Kissinger. Denying divine blessing to the nation's war, and labeling its war as “a national sin”, is anathema in theocratic ideology 🙂

  4. Bernard – When the president of the United States speaks at an event, he lends legitimacy to the organization that sponsored this event — even if some of the speech implicitly take issue with some of that organization’s principles. I believe that this is pretty obviously true, and that the burden of proof is on anyone who disagrees with it. You’ve stated your disagreement, but you haven’t presented any arguments to back it up.

    You’ve also questioned Jeff Sharlet’s honesty and integrity with regard to his book The Family. But you haven’t read the book and don’t offer a single specific criticism — just an unsupported and deeply questionable claim that “The Family speaks best for itself.”

    If you have something more substantive to offer on either of these two questions, I’ll be happy to post it in this comments thread. Otherwise, I think we’re done.

  5. Matthew:

    When the president speaks at an event, he lends some of the heft, prestige, and legitimacy of the office of the President of the United States to the organization that sponsors the event.

    Last week, I read the book: The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. I have no specific criticism of the book. I have no problem with Jeff Sharlet's honesty, integrity, and thoroughly researched scholarship.

    May Jeff Sharlet's journey be safe and inspired.
    May the road rise up to meet him.
    May the wind be always at his back.
    And the sun shine warm upon his face….
    (Traditional Gaelic blessing)

    (I am following the Family's example of including in this post the substance of a prayer 😉

    Still left over is this sentence from Matthew's review of the book: “The Family teaches that those who hold worldly power, as long as they pledge obedience to Jesus, can kill, torture, rape, steal, and lie on a mass scale with no moral constraints whatsoever.” This is like writing: “ISIS teaches that those who hold worldly power, as long as they pledge obedience to Mohamed, can kill, torture, rape, steal, and lie on a massive scale, with no moral constraints whatsoever.”

    I looked for support for this sentence in Sharlet's book, but did not find it. On this matter of fact, I suggest that “the Family speaks best for itself.”

    If the Family, in fact, teaches something that is morally bankrupt, this can be challenged and discussed.

    The President might lend some of the legitimacy of his office to speak to the Family on this issue at the next Annual Prayer Breakfast. All will benefit from the lesson and discussion 😉

  6. In Chapter One of The Family, Jeff Sharlet discusses a group house in Washington DC called Ivanwald, which is a training center for future leaders of the Family, and where Sharlet lived for a period of time while he was doing research for the book. He describes one afternoon when the housemates, or "brothers," gathered for a talk by David Coe, whose father, Doug Coe, has been head of the Family since 1969. Coe told the group, "You guys are here to learn how to rule the world" (35).

    Coe told them about King David in the Old Testament, as someone who "liked to do really, really bad things," who "slept with another man's wife…and then basically murdered her husband," and yet is a hero — not because of any moral qualities but simply because he was chosen by God. Coe told them that members of the Family were all just toys created for God, and Coe wasn't going to judge any of them even if they had, say, "raped three little girls" (36).

    To illustrate Christ's parable of the wineskins ("you can't pour new into old"), Coe told them about Genghis Khan, "a man with a vision," and how when Genghis Khan entered a defeated city he would summon the local leader and have him stuffed in a crate, on top of which a wonderful meal would be laid out. "And then, while the man suffocated, Genghis ate, and he didn't even hear the man's screams" (37).

    The conclusion that Coe drew from all this: "If you're a person known to be around Jesus, you can go and do anything. And that's who you guys are. When you leave here, you're not only going to know the value of Jesus, you're going to know the people who rule the world. It's about vision. Get your vision straight, then relate. Talk to the people who rule the world, and help them obey. Obey Him" (38).

    I encourage everyone to read Sharlet's book and see whether my summary is accurate.


Leave a Comment